Loving High-Tech--and Privacy, Too

The Heartland Monitor Poll finds Americans ambivalent about how much their lives rely on the digital world.


Digital technology now dominates how many Americans interact with the world: how people get their news, talk with loved ones, and how they work.

The most recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll looked at the impact the digital revolution has had on Americans' lives. When it comes to whether technology has had a vast impact, the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said that the ability to access information from anywhere was the best thing that technology has done for them, even better than the ease of working outside of the office and staying in touch through social media. Two of the most visible ways that technology has permeated American culture—online shopping and entertainment-streaming services—were amenities Americans cared much less about.

Maria Cruz, who is an 18-year-old student born in the Dominican Republic, thinks that technology has made getting an education and a job just a little easier. “It’s helped me do homework and network with people when it comes to my career,” she said. She also uses Skype and social media apps like WhatsApp, to connect with friends internationally.

Even though older generations appeared to be a slightly less excited about the Internet, many appreciate the opportunity it gives them for continued learning. Mikki Telesco, from California, says that she embraces the Internet despite the fact that she considers herself “Internet-illiterate.” After retiring from the garden department at Home Depot, Telesco still uses the Internet for finding recipes, looking up insects that infect her plot of home-grown tomatoes, and learning how to de-skunk her dog. “It’s like opening up an encyclopedia that’s got everything in the world right there at your fingertips. You can look up anything to do with anything.”

Despite the fact that a majority of Americans say that the Internet and the advancements that followed have improved their lives, there was one thing they were resoundingly negative about: the loss of their privacy.

While tasks like shopping and keeping up on the news have become more convenient, many questioned whether technology brought the world to their doorstep at the cost of protecting their most essential information.

“There’s no way around it. There’s nothing private anymore unless you keep it in your brain,” Telesco told me. “I think anyone that is extremely intelligent can figure out a way to get into people’s stuff.“

When asked more specifically what effect this digital revolution has had on their privacy, only 17 percent were positive about it, while nearly half of overall respondents (44 percent) responded negatively. The remaining 34 percent had mixed feelings.

Older generations were more negative than the millennials, most of whom have come to age amidst a bevy of technological advancement. About a quarter of young adults aged 18-24 said that technology has was good for their privacy, while nearly half of all the older-age groups disagreed.

“I know that a lot of us millennials joke about ‘cyber fear’,” Erin Gainer, a 21-year-old student at Virginia Wesleyan College said. “I don’t want to say that older generations don’t understand, but I do think the Internet has its own culture, and there’s a lot of cultural context that you have to have been brought up in to fully comprehend.”

While Gainer agrees that millennials may be more entrenched in technology, she notes that they also understand the risks. She drew on instances of Internet fraud among her friends and public cyberbullying. “I think that the Internet can be just another platform for harassment in addition to such a great outlet for raising awareness for issues.”

Of the 1,000 Americans polled, the results of how people perceived their privacy generally trends more negatively than positively across income level, class, educational background, employment status, and political-party affiliation.

The only exception was nonwhite respondents. While 47 percent of white respondents said technology had harmed their privacy, black men and women were most likely to say technology had improved it. Overall, 29 percent of black Americans were positive when it came to feelings about their privacy in the digital age.

So even as Americans become more and more reliant on technology, it seems that most remain wary of its potential for harm.